Green marketing: Seven ways to separate yourself from the pack

Now that Green is becoming commonplace, you'll want to use smart marketing techniqies to rise above the crowd.

This question from a gentleman in the building industry came my way a couple of weeks ago:

“Now that everyone is building green, how do you separate yourself from the pack? What does it take to sell green to the homeowner?”

It’s a good question and one that is relevant to many businesses outside construction as well.  Here is a (slightly edited) recap of my reply:

Hi Dan,

Thanks for your query.  Here are some thoughts on your question.

1. In most cases, don’t use Green as your front-line benefit. You’re absolutely right.  There’s nothing unique about green any more.  In most cases, green shouldn’t be your front-line benefit.  However it does play a great supporting role.  I like to keep up with green marketing research as much as I can, and every survey I’ve read recently indicates that Americans are continuing to shift more towards Green products.  Even the recession hasn’t put a dent in Green spending.

On the other hand, there’s an exception to every rule, and you definitely want to get a good handle on what’s important to your clientele.  If you’re selectively marketing to the very environmentally conscious, you might very well want to position your product as a solution to your customers’ environmental concerns.  For example, say you’re a solar PV installer in Wisconsin.  A recent survey of Wisconsin homeowners who installed solar electric systems indicates that their top two reasons for purchasing were to protect the environment and to reduce their personal carbon footprint.  In this case you’d definitely want to highlight the environmental benefits of your product, as well as target your marketing efforts towards the environmentally concerned.

2. Highlight savings, build value. Especially in this economy, saving money is a huge incentive for most people.  People are starting to catch on that greener choices often result in savings. Even if your product is more expensive, see if you can show your customer that it’s a better value and will save them money in the long run.

3. Find your prospects’ emotional hot buttons. Many green products also carry other, often related but more personal benefits which may resonate more strongly with your prospects.  For instance, they can contribute to more comfortable, healthier homes or be more aesthetically pleasing.  Figure out which emotional hot buttons appeal to your customers and show them how your Green products can make them healthier, happier, etc.

4. Keep up with available perks. If you’re a contractor or installer, or sell high-efficiency appliances, make sure you keep up to date with all the federal, state and local incentives available to your customers.  These can often tip the balance in your favor. (If you’re a builder or installer, or have implemented green practices in your own business, you may qualify for some extra perks,too!  Check out Business.gov’s posts on Green Tax Incentives and Save Money Through Energy Efficiency Laws. )

5. Segment your customer base. Realize that not everybody thinks about green the same way.  You can split the population up into a number of categories based on their green buying behaviors and understanding of sustainability issues.  Try marketing in different ways to the various segments of your customer base.  Referring back to my first point, it’s crucial to understand what’s important to your customers.  As a Green builder, you may find that some of the products you offer – say, energy-efficiency products – appeal to people for different reasons, and/or appeal to different people, than others (such as low-VOC paint or reclaimed or recycled building materials.)  Although you may spend a little more to develop different campaigns for each segment of your market, you’re likely to greatly increase your ROI by doing so.

6. Educate, educate, educate! Education is really important.  A lot of people don’t even have green on their radar screen yet.  Many more are interested, but don’t know where to start.  You may find they’re looking to you to help them.  Do a good job, and they’re likely to spread the word to their friends.

A few ways to generate sales and leads through education:

  • In your monthly newsletter or e-zine
  • On your website or blog
  • Video – on You tube, on your website or given to the customer on CD
  • Information packages
  • Teleseminars
  • Giving classes and workshops
  • Contributing articles to newspapers and magazines
  • Public speaking to local groups, hosting your own radio show, etc.

7.Get involved. Precious few companies – even ones promoting themselves as Green – actually seek out comunity involvement.  If you want to reach the die-hard green crowd (not a large portion of the population but a very influential one), or any other niche that’s important to your business, get involved in their causes.  Does your community have a sustainability group or committee?  Join!  Green Drinks (informal nights out at local watering holes) are another good place to network.  How about lending a hand to community projects or charitable causes?

If you decide to go this route, though, be authentic about it.  You have to truly believe in the cause and be prepared to pitch in with the group’s agenda.  If you’re phony and just there to get sales they’ll know it.  But if you stick with it, it will likely pay off very well over time – not just in terms of networking and sales, but socially and spiritually as well.

These are just a few ideas.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What are you doing to promote your own green business?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer who helps Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into Green marketing and sales writing, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.

How is marketing solar like pushing a rock?

Lowering a solar panel to a rooftop in Wisconsin
Installing a solar panel. I believe scenes like this will become increasingly common over the coming decade.

As a market force, solar is moving out of its infancy.   It’s been interesting to watch its growth spurt  over the past couple years.  Based on my experience with my own and others’ companies, from following industry conversations on social media like LinkedIn, and from attending educational events such as the Good & Green Marketing conference held last November in Chicago, here is a simple equation describing the solar industry in the U.S.:

Massive public curiosity and interest…

The public has developed a tremendous interest in solar and other clean energy technology.  It’s moved from a fringe, “hippy” thing to a mainstream, albeit cutting-edge, phenomenon.

+ general public ignorance
The public is amazingly ignorant about solar and about energy efficiency in general.

For instance, after attending the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair last June as a solar thermal vendor, my company received a large number of calls from individuals concerned about their high heat bills.  They were hoping to knock them down with solar.  We had to explain to them that, while solar thermal is amazing technology and can be a cost-effective home heating solution, it’s not usually a good way to combat high heating expenses.  Solar is powerful but it’s not fossil fuel.  It needs to be used in conjunction with energy conservation.  Air seal and insulate first, then think about solar.  (In fact, this experience caused us to reevaluate the entire focus of our business.  We have since added Home Performance with Energy Star evaluations and air sealing and insulation services to our offerings for a more wholistic, vertically integrated approach.)

That’s just one example.  For another one, here’s an experiment you can try for yourself:  When solar comes up in a mainstream conversation, try injecting the word “PV” and watch the confused expressions.  (For the uninitiated, PV is commonly-used shorthand for “photovoltaics” amongst those in the solar industry)

= huge potential for growth
Taking the above points into account, I believe there is massive potential for expansion in the solar market.  I like to think of it as potential energy – like a boulder (public interest) teetering at the edge of a cliff, held back by a number of obstacles at its base.  All it will take is the removal of a few stones to unleash the energy that will allow the boulder to fall.

However, many of these obstacles are significant.  As I see it, some of the major ones are:

  1. Cost – My company happens to be located in Wisconsin, where there are some pretty nice incentives programs. Even so, solar is a big investment and a lot of people still see it as beyond their means.  Even with incentives, the payback on PV is too long for the typical mainstream person to consider it.  I am optimistic that technological improvements will shorten the payback in the future (and certain that rising energy prices will, too), but for now it’s a major barrier.
  2. Ignorance – Despite its rising popularity, solar is still not on the  radar screen for the majority of the population. Many more are interested but confused, as in my example above.  Also there’s a lot of confusion between solar thermal (which has a relatively fast payback) and PV.
  3. Skepticism – based on ignorance and sometimes reality.  Comments like these are common:  “Can solar really work in the winter in Wisconsin?”  (Answer: Yes!)   “You’ll never see a payback from solar.” (Answer:  It depends on the system.  For off grid PV?  Maybe not.  For the typical solar domestic hot water system?  Absolutely you will, typically in 7 to ten years but it could be less depending on your hot water usage.)
  4. Fear – of shoddy or incompetent work (happened a lot back in the 80’s and I’m afraid we’re seeing signs of it now as out-of-work contractors and electricians jump on the solar bandwagon); fear of not getting their money’s worth if they sell the property before payoff;  fear of the unknown.

What are the solutions?  Here are a few:

  • Better incentives and rebates – Government seems to be working on this, although it varies a lot by state.
  • Financing options – either through installing companies, banks, specialized clean energy financing companies, or municipal programs like PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) financing, in which communities lend money to residents and the payments are added to property taxes.  (This also addresses the objection of not wanting to make major investments in a home that one might sell before payback is reached.)
  • Education – by schools, churches, and especially business.  I personally believe that education should be a major component of any businesses’ marketing plan, but especially when it comes to renewable energy.  We need to listen to and dialogue with the public.  We especially need to make ourselves aware of questions and objections and answer them truthfully and honestly.  We also need to answer in terms our customers can understand and relate to.
  • Collaboration – We need to frame our information according to the worldview of whatever segment of the population we’re dealing with.  Often the best way to do this is to work together with other non-business entities.  For instance, I just attended (as a vendor) an eco-spirituality forum hosted by a local Catholic church and led by a Franciscan sister.  That woman was able to speak to the people present in words that resonated deeply with them.  I could have gotten up and given them the same information about how important is is to save energy, but she was able to do it so much more successfully than I could have because she framed it in terms of their faith.  Churches and other community groups are starting to speak up for the environment and I think any renewable energy business that doesn’t tap into this is missing a very powerful alliance.  (I say this very respectfully, by the way.)

Marketing solar is an important and exciting field, and one I’m proud to be part of.  I’m sure there are plenty more good ideas and insights out there.  What are some of yours?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer specializing in helping Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into marketing, sales writing and sustainability, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.